Inspiration for cooking with Caribbean spices

Nutmeg tree

One of the joys of travelling comes from getting up close with local cooking and with street food. You never know what you might experience as a result of trying something – and I mean in a good way of course.

So when I was given a small recipe booklet by a lady from whom I had just bought a small basket of local herbs and spices near the harbour in St Georges, Grenada I was delighted with what I found.

No more than 3 inches tall and consisting of a photocopied yellow sheet folded in two it just goes to show that not all cookbooks are glossy and full of delicious looking dishes or chefs! Although not impressive on the outside, this little book is packed with local advice on the inside. Reading it reminds me that the herbs and spices we use only in special dishes are used in everyday cooking throughout the Caribbean islands and that we too might use them more often too.

In my experience these delicate flavours can rarely spoil a dish (perhaps maybe cinnamon) and so often make the ordinary more exciting, adding subtle depth of flavour. Here’s the local advice.

Hotdog with Caribbean Chow Chow relish Saffron gives exotic flavour and colour to creamed shellfish and fish and egg cookery – vegetable – salads – salad dressing – pickles – chow chow relishes. Add to mild curry dishes for extra flavour and richer appearance. What is chow chow I hear you ask? It is a relish made in the southern states of the US and Caribbean, from tomatoes, onions and peppers.

Cloves are commonly used for seasoning fish – especially turtle. Every home uses clove at Christmas for decorating their ham before baking – also for flavouring theChristmas drink which is called Sorrel. Turtle is still eaten by island communities as it has for hundreds of years. They do not see there is a conservation problem because they have always eaten it – although today they will be lucky to catch any as these beautiful creatures around some islands. But we should try this with other fish.

A little grated nutmeg gives a delicious flavour to fruit salad – bread pudding – rumpunch – egg-nog also on roasted lamb. This is more in line with what many of us use nutmeg for already, but I have never tried it with lamb.

Mace gives a nice flavour to soups and (cow heel) fish. A little pinch of mace is also nice in wine sauce. Now mace really is something we rarely use. Apart from making Scotch Eggs or sausages with some mace I cannot think of a dish I use it in. Time to experiment.

Nutmeg-mace-small Cinnamon is one of the chief spices. Every home uses cinnamon in breakfast cakes of all kind and puddings (cocoa – chocolate). When one gets a chill – first to offer in a house as a hot cup of cinnamon tea. Nowadays we use cinnamon in much of our baking, especially since Scandi-recipes arrived; but a cup of cinnamon tea?

Funny how tastes change. As a child I remember my mother using cinnamon a lot for some of the dishes described above – but she cooks these less now and we certainly use less cinnamon than she would have. Herbes do Provence, olive oil and curry sauces seem more the norm today as the influence of Mediterranean and convenience cooking have more and more influence on tastes.

Ginger is used in spicy puddings – cakes – cookies – snaps – pumpkin pie – baked – stewed or preserved fruit sauces. Also used with stews – pot roasts – barbecued spare ribs – baked beans – Chinese cookery – chutneys and dressings for fruit salads. For interesting flavour rub a roasting fowl with ginger and butter.

For many years the ginger root has been used medicinally throughout the Caribbean, principally to calm the stomach and relieve hunger pangs. The smell of ginger wafts through the woods and along the roads throughout the Caribbean so it is always easy to find this remedy when out walking. Ginger root is now readily available in our shops, primarily used for stir-fry and oriental cooking, but a little in a stew or pot roast sounds wonderful.

Chocolate-tea Hot chocolate preparation: Drop 1 Cocoa Ball into 3 to 5 cup of water and allow to boil for 5 minutes – strain – add milk and sugar to taste. For Cake and Ice-cream grate some in the mixture for your chocolate flavour.

Raw chocolate is now becoming more widely available but we don’t know how to use it. A recent search for chocolate balls reveals some suppliers and also Caribbean chocolate tea and cocoa tea recipes. That sounds interesting.

Bay leaf is used in pickling stews – spiced vinegars – and soup. Use with any tomato mixture. One bay leaf whole or broken flavours a whole casserole or a tomato soup.

Now bay is one of my favourite herbs and I think I can say I use it in all of the dishes mentioned, but there are lots of new things to try out besides this. What a great little book. Good things come in tiny parcels.

First written in 1986. Still interesting!

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Tropical Sky

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Nick Henley

Freelance writer

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